Bloomberg Businessweek posted a provocative article, Sex Among Dementia Patients Spurs Call for Policies, that will no doubt get the attention of professionals, and family members alike. The attached article is well-worth the read, and I have a few comments of my own to add.
I acknowledge that sexual activities most likely occur in every long-term setting out there. Consenting adults – even those with varying degrees of dementia – need touch and physical connection. I think it’s fabulous that in spite of the limitations brought about by cognitive impairment, human beings still maintain the desire to give affection, and receive affection. In some instances, affection may simply be expressed with hand holding or sitting next to someone, hip-to-hip. Or perhaps a hug and a kiss are involved. All of these actions are perfectly innocent without harm as long as all touching is consensual.
Some residents may express their need to give and receive affection with more intimate sexual activities, so if both parties are willing and able, I think intimacy is an important part of their well-being.
What about those patients who are already married to someone else?
It takes an understanding and flexible spouse or partner to overlook the intimate activities of their cognitively impaired loved one. The commitment made between the two parties years ago is a commitment that still resides within the deep recesses of that person’s being – but it’s a commitment that can not be drawn upon and reaffirmed because of memory impairment. (I think it’s important to not assume that adulterous motivations are in play here.) Marriage itself may be a concept that is no longer understood by the patient, and as is oftentimes the case – the visiting spouse exists as a friendly visitor, not the wife or husband that the patient used to know.
I can’t predict how I would feel if similar circumstances came my way in the future – my husband and I have not fallen into the cognitive impaired category – yet. And you don’t have to agree with what I’ve stated above. The sentiments I have provided come from my own personal beliefs, and from the perspective of having both worked in long-term care in my past, and having had family members who have lived in long-term care housing.
One last thing: As dementia care specialist Teepa Snow stated in the attached article, “No matter what you do, somebody’s going to see you as wrong.” The issues of sex and intimacy touch many personal, religious, and ethnic biases and beliefs. There are no completely right or completely wrong answers. I’m simply thrilled that the long-term care industry has stopped pretending that geriatric sex isn’t happening, and that they are no longer treating it as a taboo subject. I take comfort in that fact.